The Ace up the Sleeve: Federal Courts Allow Employer Counterclaims for Property Damage to Wipe Out the Jones Act Claims of Seamen

Courtney L. Collins | Comment

The nature of the maritime industry inevitably gives rise to accidents resulting in both property damage and injury to a seaman. Often, this leads the seaman to file a claim under the Jones Act, a statue that allows injured seamen to recover from negligent employers. In response to this type of situation, some employers have elected to file a counterclaim against the injured seaman for the property damage caused in the accident. Through section 5 of the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA), which has been incorporated into the Jones Act, Congress prohibited “[a]ny contract, rule, regulation, or device whatsoever, the purpose or intent of which shall be to enable any common carrier to exempt itself from any [Jones Act] liability.” Surprisingly, the majority of U.S. courts of appeal have allowed these property damage counterclaims to proceed against the injured seaman, even when the counterclaim has the effect of wiping out the seaman’s Jones Act recovery to the benefit of the employer.

The issue of employer counterclaims against Jones Act claimants for property damage under the Jones Act is relatively novel. However, when these types of situations arise, the impact on the employee, or seaman in a Jones Act context, is very real. This Comment will provide an analysis of employer property damage counterclaims against injured employees and Jones Act seamen protected by FELA. Furthermore, this Comment will attempt to illustrate why employer property damage counterclaims against injured seamen should be considered prohibited by section 5 of FELA.

To achieve this end, this Comment will look at the history and the policies behind both FELA and the Jones Act and conduct a survey of the jurisprudence of federal circuits construing section 5. This Comment will then examine the case law of the circuits that allow property damage counterclaims as well as the lone circuit that prohibits these counterclaims. Finally, this Comment will discuss whether these counterclaims are prohibited by section 5 of FELA by (1) analyzing the statutory language in the context of congressional intent, (2) addressing the concerns associated with prohibiting employer property damage counterclaims, and (3) examining the harsh results created by employer property damage counterclaims, specifically in the maritime setting.